All posts by Scott Madere

Do You Care if a Movie is “Historically Accurate?” I Don’t – Here’s Why

While I have movies on my mind, I am going to confess something that may shock you: I don’t care if a movie is “historically accurate.”

I’ve endured countless debates and conversations with friends about which movies are “accurate” and which are not. I’ve read lists published by web sites touting the alleged accuracy of some movies while vilifying the inaccurate. I do not suspect that these debates will end anytime soon, and honestly, they shouldn’t. But, I do want to say a few things about the movies and historical “accuracy,” and why, ultimately, it does not matter.

Most importantly, true accuracy is impossible. No matter how hard I try, or anyone tries, we will never truly be able to perfectly re-create a past event in the human mind. Even a person who was there to witness an event cannot recreate it. That person might come close, but he or she will always be inaccurate. Think about a battlefield, for example. Eyewitnesses to battles attempt to tell it as they see it, but by virtue of position, they cannot relay everything. They are very occupied with the important business of surviving, after all. Ever been in a high stress environment? How well do you remember anything about that environment? What about a low stress environment like a baseball game? Think about the last time you swung a bat in a game. Did you get a hit? What was the count? How many outs were there? Can you name everyone on your team? How many people were in the crowd? What was the umpire’s name? You might then say, well, the umpire’s name is not really important. What’s important was that I got a hit. That’s exactly how a movie producer would see it. Because…

Historically accurate? Not with those fillings in your molars, Gerard Butler!

When a person makes a movie, it is less about interpreting evidence and more about story. A historian would do his best in the example above to identify the umpire. How could the umpire NOT be important to a historian? After all, he’s the only person who determines whether someone is out or safe. Surely, who that person is – and his background – is important to interpreting what really happened that day. But if we were to make a movie about that baseball game, we would not start with the umpire’s life story. That’s because the story would be boring, and movies are made for entertainment purposes. Movie producers are challenged with, among many things, the limits of time, speech, and traditional (three act) storytelling structure to portray an event from history. Choices have to be made to streamline the most important storytelling elements while setting aside less important evidence. In the movie 300, for example, we know that there were more Greeks fighting than the 300 Spartans featured (there was no less than 5,200 according to Herodotus), but the movie is centered on the Spartans, their characters, and their actions. So when the fighting starts, the additional Greeks are barely depicted, if at all. There’s actually a lot more that I could say about 300 in particular, but I’m not going to beat a dead horse. Because…

Audiences are already aware that the movie is inaccurate. That’s right. Let’s not underestimate the intelligence of the average movie-goer. Sure, there are plenty of people who have not taken advantage of the opportunity to learn history. But the audience for a movie based on history is more likely to know at least something about the material depicted in the movie. These viewers are already accustomed to the liberties that movie producers take with history, and they know not to take the movie as the definitive source material on a historical event. In fact, for many, a movie serves as a spark to learn more about the time, people, places, and events in the movie.

Gee, thanks for the box, Pandora. I can open it, right? Nothing bad’s going to happen?

The story serves as a gateway to learn more about the material. Think about when you were a kid. What made you want to know more about a particular subject? Did you see a documentary about it, or a movie, or even a cartoon? For me, it was the The Mighty Hercules cartoon that inspired my interest in mythology. I watched the adventures of Hercules on New Orleans’ WGNO-TV in the afternoons, and I went to the library to find actual books on Greek myths shortly thereafter. Even as a kindergartner, I was smart enough to know that the cartoon was based on source material. I knew someone drew the cartoon, and whoever that was based his story on actual myths and mythological characters. Let’s give people a little bit of credit here, and not assume that they are going to believe everything they see on the screen, without questioning it.

Fess Parker Davy Crockett > John Wayne Davy Crockett > Billy Bob Thornton Davy Crockett

One of the things people SHOULD question about movies, but frequently don’t, is what the movie says about the time in which it was made. Movies about historical events give us the opportunity to see well-known stories told over and over. The movie itself becomes a capsule of the time, place, and people who made it. For example, if we watch the 1960 version of The Alamo, we will see a Davy Crockett character who is much more in line with the folk hero version of Crockett than the flawed hero presented in the 2004 version. This would indicate that the producers of the 2004 version thought the audience of the time would relate to a more conflicted hero than the icon (portrayed by John Wayne) driving the 1960 version. Perhaps the 2004 version’s producers had a more cynical view of heroes, reflecting a social attitude of the 21st century.

This scene made me so mad, I wrote a thesis.

Inaccuracies in history-themed movies even inspire historians to set the record straight. I saw The Eagle on Netflix a while back. It’s not a bad movie. I enjoyed it. But I noticed something I doubted very much about it. Near the beginning of the movie, Channing Tatum’s character is wounded by a scythed chariot. I was immediately suspicious. I wasn’t aware that there were any scythed chariots being used in Great Britain at that time. I did the research, and what do you know? There wasn’t. I based a paper on that research, and that research also later helped me write my master’s thesis about Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain.

In conclusion, take it easy on Hollywood, and stop giving them so much importance. Movie producers, writers, and actors never will have the final say on how events and people are remembered by history. That burden is actually up to you. If you want to let Mel Gibson’s version of William Wallace be your version of William Wallace, then I can’t stop you. But you will be settling for something less than you should, and I think you know that. If you want to truly understand someone or something better than you do, seek out opportunities to get closer to the subject. Read journals, letters, newspapers, and contemporary evidence. Visit the battle field. Tour the battleship, submarine, or aircraft carrier. Talk to veterans about their experiences. Talk to your grandmother about her childhood. Go to that traveling exhibit at the art museum. Go deeper than what you see on the silver screen!

Copyright 2017 Copperkettle Media LLC

So… About that “Ben-Hur” Remake…

Along with this summer’s star-crossed remake of Ghostbusters, 2016’s remake of Ben-Hur failed to challenge its predecessor(s) for the title of “best version” of a revered work. I admit that when the movie was announced, I was in the “no, thanks, not interested” category of movie-goer, being a huge fan of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur – my favorite movie of all-time.  When the trailer for the new film came out in early 2016, my position was unmoved. I was discouraged by the amount of CGI work in the trailer, and figured this would be a Ben-Hur for the short-attention-span crowd.

I viewed the movie last night, and I admit that I was wrongly arrogant to think that the movie could not be told another way, or updated for modern audiences. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. It’s not perfect of course. In fact, I thought the writing was a little too loose with modern phrasing, including some particularly groan-worthy lines about being “progressive,” “fighting the good fight,” and “keeping the faith.” But the movie differs from the 1959 version in a couple of key ways, and that’s what I want to write about.

“You can find them… in… the Valley of the… LEPERS!” (Ouch)

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now, because I’m going to talk about the ending of the movie. In the 1959 movie, Messala is mortally wounded in the chariot race, and dies cursing Judah. He spits out the fate of Judah’s mother and sister (they are lepers) as he fights for his last breath. It is a dagger of malice that holds up after repeat viewings. Messala goes to the Underworld with hate in his heart for Judah, who only learns to forgive Messala through the example of Christ. This is true meaning of the story. Judah learns to forgive, after years of hatred for Messala. “… I felt his voice take the sword from my hand,” says Charlton Heston’s Judah, as he reflects on the lesson learned through Jesus. The sting of this revelation is that Judah, in the 1959 film, did not learn to forgive quickly enough. His best friend-turned-enemy, Messala, dies before he can forgive him. As human beings we know this particular pain. We have all lost someone at some point, before we could say what we wanted to say to them. But Judah had a lot to say. The moral here is to be quick to forgive, even if your enemy doesn’t want to be forgiven.

The 2016 version of Ben-Hur takes a different approach. In this version, Messala lives.

Why can’t we be friends?

I was surprised to see that he does not die. I expected the same scenes as the 1959 version. In this most recent film, Judah is inspired to seek out Messala after viewing Jesus’s death. He forgives Messala, who is physically broken, and who initially resists him at sword point. Messala eventually breaks and drops the sword as he embraces Judah, also forgiving him for their years-long conflict. When you look at this scene closely, it is actually a throwback to the 1959 quote “… I felt his voice take the sword from my hand.” But what makes this scene so powerful is that it is not Jesus who takes the sword from Judah’s hand, but Judah, following the words of Jesus, who takes the sword from Messala. In this way, I think that this remake actually improves upon the 1959 version, because this is not God taking the sword out of a mortal’s hand. This is a man taking the sword from another man, through the example of Christ. God is all-powerful. If He doesn’t want you to have a sword in your hand, He can and will see to it that you don’t. What makes forgiveness the most powerful of all human acts is that it requires humility and vulnerability from both sides. Forgiveness doesn’t originate from a position of power. The lesson of this movie is not just to forgive quickly, but to forgive totally.

What follows in the 2016 film is nothing short of incredible, as Messala is welcomed back into Judah’s family, who all forgive him. Esther forgives Messala for killing her father. Judah’s mother and sister forgive Messala for throwing them into a prison, where they contracted leprosy. To be honest, I felt that this part of the movie, which carries the right message, lacked the dramatic tension of the earlier scene between Judah and Messala. I think this was a missed opportunity for Messala and the others to show their renewed love for each other, and how that came about, rather than have it told to us via Morgan Freeman. Still, it’s rare to see something like this in a movie for modern audiences. I applaud the choice.

After watching the movie, I had a thought related to medieval history, and I’m going to start exploring it. We all know the influence of the Christian faith on medieval Europe. Or do we? The central tenet of Jesus’s teaching is forgiveness, and treating others as you would have them treat you. So why was medieval Europe plagued by cruelty, violence and friction among classes, races, and religions? How could a faith spread like wildfire across a continent, with its central message taking a back seat? Who is actually being faithful, and who is just doing it for show?

If there’s one thing that can be said about the 2016 version of Ben-Hur, it’s that the characters aren’t just going through the motions. The pace might be accelerated, the writing might be a little cringe-y, the ending might be close to ridiculous – but as Mother Angelica once said, “Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.” I choose to see the miraculous in 2016’s Ben-Hur, and I hope you do, too.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

What Can We Learn About Byzantium from the Strategikon?

I was always afraid to study Byzantium, because of its unjust reputation of complexity and strangeness. The term “Byzantine,” used to describe things that are difficult to understand, perhaps influenced me – too easily – to stay away from it. But when I picked up a copy of the Strategikon, which I encourage you to do, I immediately gained a better understanding of the Byzantine Empire, and its place as a successor to Rome. The Strategikon is a brilliant work, and it hints at many of the attitudes and conditions present in Byzantium at the time of its writing.

The first thing I noticed was pretty easy to understand. The primary tactical change between the military of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire and the Roman Republic and Empire was a shift away from traditional heavy infantry tactics toward moremobile cavalry-based forces that stressed hit and run tactics. There were a number of causes for this shift. At the time that Maurice’s Strategikon was written, infantrymen serving in the thematic armies were responsible for supplying their own equipment, which consisted of light padded armor, wooden shields and a spear and/or bow [1]. Gone were the days of state-provided heavy metal armor, tower shields, and gladiuses of the Roman legions. Cavalry was better supplied, with money for armor and weapons coming from landowning commanding officers [2]. Heavy infantry simply did not exist from an affordability standpoint in Byzantium, and even if it did exist, it would be ill-suited for the type of warfare Byzantium was forced to conduct. The region was was surrounded by enemies and its people lived in a state of near constant warfare, mostly on its own territory. Byzantine lands were better suited for ambush tactics and guerilla warfare than for massed formations of infantry, which required more space and greater numbers to operate effectively.

Byzantine forces were smaller than that of Rome [3] and as a result, they were forced to fight with tactical cleverness and awareness of the landscape. Strategikon contains an entire book dedicated to ambushes. “Well-planned ambushes are of the greatest value in warfare,” it reads [4]. The choice to center the composition of the army to meet hit and run tactics is summarized succinctly in the section on general maxims: “The general would be well advised to have more cavalry than infantry. The latter is set only for close combat, while the former is easily able to pursue or retreat, and when dismounted the men are all set to fight on foot”[5].

The repeated emphasis of the Strategikon on ambush, terrain awareness and mobility implies that the Byzantines felt a need to institutionalize their strategy on defensive warfare, to make sure the multiple, smaller units of their military acted consistently to repel the frequent invasions of larger, offensively-minded neighbors. Constantinople was the premiere city and trade center of its day, and represented a high-value plunder target for the enemies of Byzantium. One of the prevailing Byzantine tactics to protect that great city was to use the rugged countryside of modern-day Turkey its greatest force multiplier.

The defensive-minded Strategikon stresses the importance of avoiding protracted conflicts and pitched battles between armies, which was a trademark of ancient Rome. The Strategikon advises, “It is safer and more advantageous to overcome the enemy by planning and generalship than by sheer force; in the one case the results are achieved without loss to oneself, while in the other some price has to be paid”[6]. Ancient Rome’s greatest victories and defeats were epic clashes of tens of thousands of men on either side. The Punic Wars were a demonstration of the Roman will to grind down its enemies with an avalanche of men and material raised over decades. Byzantium, with its small military, economic strain and enormous list of people eager to kill them, could not afford to lose men and material the way ancient Rome could. The emphasis in the Strategikon of living to fight another day implies that the loss of soldiers was more devastating to Byzantium than ancient Rome.

This attitude is further emphasized by the extensive guidelines in the Strategikon focusing on the armament, training, discipline and organization of infantry and cavalry. The very first paragraph of Book One of the Strategikon mentions the things cavalrymen should be doing to practice their craft [7]. Byzantium had a vested interest in getting the most production and longevity possible out of their soldiers. If one reads between the lines, it is easy to see that the Strategikon is a guidebook for a country under siege.

The work continues ancient Roman traditions in a number of ways as well. There is a very businesslike philosophy regarding the training, management, organization and recruitment of soldiers that resembles the traditional Roman emphasis on practicality. “Make peace a time of training for war”[8] and “courage and discipline are able to accomplish more than a large number of warriors” [9] could easily be cut and paste from the Strategikon to any ancient Roman military manual and no one would be the wiser. There seems to be a continuity of maxims that persist from ancient Rome into the Strategikon. Book VIII bears strong resemblance to Vegetius, with mirroring themes of deception, the necessity of supply, proper behavior of officers and soldiers and picking one’s battles wisely.

Maurice. I have a painting of myself just like this hanging over my fireplace at home.

Do manuals like the Strategikon articulate an official, conscious “doctrine” for the armed forces of Byzantium? In my opinion, yes. Though the authorship of the Strategikon is questionable, if the work is indeed Maurice’s, then we have a military emperor formalizing his philosophy. Imperial communications are usually intended to be followed. If the work is not Maurice’s, then it is still written by someone high up in command with the intent of distributing it to the lower ranks. Byzantium was a literate society. “The fact that the officers in the Byzantine army had to be able to read and write by itself sets it apart from other medieval armies,” says George Dennis of the Strategikon in the introduction [10]. The system for manual distribution exists via the literate commanders of Byzantium. Why require the commanders to be literate if there is no intention to pass written doctrines like the Strategikon to them? The introduction goes on to mention that Maurice was a reform-minded military ruler whose goal was to “put an end to the system of private armies which had prevailed for a century or more”[11].

Furthermore, from a strategic standpoint there is a strong motive for the centralization of the Byzantine military. Byzantium was set on all sides by enemies. In order for the empire to survive, a coordinated, smart strategy needed to be enacted from top to bottom. Byzantium could not afford to lose men, material, commanders or territory. The Strategikon, with its highly detailed scenarios and specific mention of tactical adaptation against various named enemies, lays out a defensive playbook that any field commander can learn and follow. It is a franchise-model system in which the enemies of Byzantium can expect the same type of fight from every commander and every unit that the Byzantines throw at them, regardless of where it occurs. The basic tactical theme of the Strategikon is, apparently, to make the invaders’ lives a living hell until they leave Byzantium.

Regarding the Roman continuity debate, I think the most important thing to remember is that these people called themselves Romans. They could have called themselves anything. Their home territory is a thousand miles from Rome, geographically, and the actual state of Western Rome had been dead for more than 100 years when this document was written. No living person at the time personally remembered the Western Roman Empire, but they felt it was important to share its name. There was an undeniable philosophical, social and religious connection shared between Rome and Byzantium that led Byzantium’s citizens to claim descent from Rome.

One difference that can be seen in the documents of Vegetius versus Byzantium that points to a change in attitude are the number of references to God and Christianity in the Strategikon that doesn’t exist in the earlier Roman work. Though Christianity united West and East, it can be argued that Christianity had a more prominent and central role in hearts and minds of Byzantine citizens and leaders than their Roman counterparts. Maurice’s call to the Holy Trinity in his introduction serves as a good example of that sentiment [12]. There is a level of sincerity there which conveys that the work is not only being endorsed by Maurice, but also by the Lord. Much like the mention of cavalry and training at the opening of Book One, if it’s important, it’s right at the beginning, where you can’t miss it. Otherwise, it would be buried in the middle.


[1] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History: Society, Technology, and War from Ancient times to the Present (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 152.

[2] Maurice and George T. Dennis, Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), 12.

[3] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War, 152.

[4] Maurice and George T. Dennis, Maurice’s Strategikon, 52.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 80.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., xiv.

[11] Ibid., xii.

[12] Ibid., 8.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

Hannibal and Rome – What’s the Angle for Polybius and Livy?

One of the most important things to keep in mind about many ancient sources is that, frequently, they were written many years after the events described in those sources. This leads to two things: the event described will be flawed in some way – possibly a large way – and the narrative will tell the reader as much about the time of the author as it will about the event in question.

Polybius hung out with some pretty powerful people. How do you think that may have affected his work?

A good example of this are two accounts of the Battle of Cannae and its aftermath, provided to us by Polybius and Livy. In each historian’s narrative, they rightfully praise Hannibal’s tactical brilliance and describe him as a legitimate danger to the existence of Rome. I think that Hannibal’s tactical achievements stand for themselves, and would be apparent no matter who tells the tale. I also think that even though Polybius and Livy contribute to his legend, they do so in a way that speaks for the glory of Rome. By painting Hannibal as a terrible and cunning opponent, Polybius and Livy cast the Roman Republic as a determined and unbreakable entity that can withstand a threat like Hannibal, take on any challenge, and stand the test of time.

Both Polybius and Livy had personal connections to powerful Roman aristocracy. Polybius was the tutor of Scipio Aemilianus, the grandson (by adoption) of Publius Scipio Africanus, the hero of the Second Punic War. Livy frequented the court of Augustus Caesar and was known in the halls of power at the time. Being close to powerful people, neither writer is motivated to paint Rome as easy to defeat, or the victory over Carthage as anything but a glorious act of national willpower by Rome. Praising Hannibal is in line with this notion. After all, who could defeat the terrible and brilliant Hannibal but the more brilliant and resourceful citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic?

Both Polybius and Livy were writing large-scale histories of the Republic. In telling the story of Cannae and the ravages of Hannibal upon Italy, ultimately their focus is on Roman fortitude and determination – the unbreakable Roman character.

Following his account of Cannae, Polybius brings the reader’s attention back to the real story. “Yet the Senate neglected no means in its power, but exhorted and encouraged the populace, strengthened the defences of the city, and deliberated on the situation with manly coolness. And subsequent events made this manifest. For though the Romans were now incontestably beaten and their military reputation shattered, yet by the peculiar virtues of their constitution and by wise counsel they not only recovered their supremacy in Italy and afterwards defeated the Carthaginians, but in a few years made themselves masters of the whole world.” [1]

Livy also brings the post-Cannae focus back to Roman resilience: “Certainly there is no other nation that would not have succumbed beneath such a weight of calamity.”[2]  Livy later praises the Roman civic traits of remaining level-headed and cool under threat of extermination: “… no one anywhere in Rome mentioned the word ‘Peace,’ either before the consul’s return or after his arrival when all the memories of their losses were renewed. Such a lofty spirit did the citizens exhibit in those days that though the consul was coming back from a terrible defeat for which they knew he was mainly responsible, he was met by a vast concourse drawn from every class of society, and thanks were formally voted to him because he ‘had not despaired of the republic.’ Had he been commander-in-chief of the Carthaginians there was no torture to which he would not have been subjected.”[3]

Because the Livy and Polybius make sure the focus is in the proper place, on the glory of Rome, it becomes safe to praise Hannibal. By the time Polybius and Livy wrote their histories, the Carthaginian leader and all his people had long been vanquished. The city of Carthage itself lay in ruin, never to revive. What harm could it do to praise a valorous enemy, who threw his best punch at Rome, but still could not finish the job?

Over the years, the Roman defeat at Cannae remains more famous than the Roman final victory at Zama, where Hannibal ran for his life and lost tens of thousands of men. Why?

The Roman victory at Zama ended in a peace treaty. There’s nothing more to say after that battle, which ended the Second Punic War. Cannae, however, is not the end of the story. It’s the high point of the story, in which Rome’s survival is hanging in the balance. Enter the final act, in which Rome recovers and a hero, Scipio Africanus, emerged. Polybius and Livy take the opportunity to cast Hannibal as the tactically brilliant but doomed villain, who defeated the soldiers of Rome, but not the spirit of Rome.

There are more factors that come into play than just Roman moral fortitude, but it’s interesting that the writers choose focus on this. As an institution, Rome was always very concerned with its image, both to its own people and to people outside of Rome. It was important for the people of Rome to feel as though they came from good stock, that their ancestors were morally righteous and virtuous, worthy of the ancestral veneration practiced in their homes and in the Senate. Livy and Polybius acknowledge that need with their writing, which elevates the idea of Rome. But the nitty-gritty of how Rome won is another story.

The GOAT of transcontinental road-trips involving elephants.

Keeping an invasion force well supplied deep into enemy territory was quite the challenge for any nation in the ancient world, but for Hannibal, it was almost a worst-case scenario. Hannibal’s only hope for resupply would be what he could forage from the countryside or wiggle out of Rome’s shakier Italian neighbors. For supplies to come from Carthage, they would have to come the same way Hannibal came, over the Alps. The sea wasn’t an option. Rome had control of the Western Mediterranean at the time (thanks to the First Punic War), and surely if Hannibal could have launched his invasion by sea, he would have done so.

Resupply would have been essential in a protracted siege of Rome, which had walls, manpower and, most importantly, river access.  Perhaps Hannibal’s best options, strategically, were to either force a political settlement to end the war, or find a way to rally the Italian cities and countryside against Rome.

Communication also played a vital role. It was much easier for Rome to communicate the will of the Senate to its people and nearby allies than it was for the Carthegians to coordinate strategy with Hannibal, across a sea that they did not control.

Surely, if we can see the difficulty/near impossibility of capturing Rome in this scenario, then Hannibal himself could as well. Is it possible, then, that Hannibal underestimated Roman resolve? In that case, the mistake would have been in assuming that the Romans thought like everyone else did. They clearly do not. That was one tough town, and it is a culturally unique element of Romans. The uniqueness of Rome – the things that make them exceptional – are the traits that the people of Rome celebrated most about themselves, and wanted to hear most from their writers and see from their artists. Busts, statues, arches, triumphs, celebratory games, theater, legends, and histories were all dedicated to their city, its heroes and its ancestors. It’s quite the multimedia public relations machine. The extent to which Livy and Polybius contribute to that machine is worth much consideration.


[1] Polybius: The Histories II, W. R. Paton, trans., (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 293.

[2] Livy, The History of Rome, Vol III, 22.54.

[3] Ibid., 22.61.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

A Closer Look at Sources: Herodotus, Polybius, and Aeschylus

It would be great if all sources we used to create history were complete, with perfect viewpoints, and no agendas of any kind, but that’s simply not true. It’s never been that way, even among the earliest of historians. Limitations due to point of view, time, and distance affect us all. In this post, I’m going to take a look at three ancient writers, Herodotus, Polybius, and Aeschylus, and show some of the characteristics and factors that affect their view of certain events.

One of the big issues when it comes to describing naval warfare, as opposed to land warfare, is point of view. In most situations, unless the battle was near an elevated terrain feature, it would be difficult for an eyewitness to describe the exact movement of naval forces against each other. Eyewitnesses are limited to the ship they occupied and its view. Herodotus and Polybius show us that there can be hundreds of ships in any ancient naval battle, and the spread of forces had the potential to be much wider than in a land engagement. Land battles in the ancient world are usually more compact affairs, and the potential to observe coordinated movement of troops would be greater, for observers and participants.

The general body of knowledge regarding naval warfare is not as well-known as that of land warfare. A typical historian writing well after the fact can  more easily imagine the movements and collision of forces on land than the specialized tactics and movement of ships. The exception, of course, is the historian experienced in that sort of warfare.

Herodotus, the “Father of History.”

Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Salamis suffers from a lack of detail regarding the tactics of what happened during the battle. In   fact, he almost dismisses the collision of the main body of ships: “For as the Greeks fought in order and kept their line, while the barbarians were in confusion and had no plan in anything that they did, the issue of the battle could scarce be other than it was”[1]. That, according to Herodotus, sums up what happened in one neat little line. Apparently that was enough?

Though Herodotus is light on tactics, he does provide however, a who’s who of participants in the battle, a summary of how the squadrons were lined up, and the fates of several groups of participants. He provides a good deal of information on the actions of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus [2], which could be due to Herodotus himself being from Halicarnassus.

It seems that the biggest problem Herodotus faced when recounting Salamis was not the strategic meetings and maneuvering before the battle but the actual tactical disposition of the ships during the battle. This could have been because the history was written 40 years after the fact, when larger details would have stood out more than smaller ones, particularly if eyewitnesses by that time were hard to come by. We also have to remember that Herodotus was one of, if not the first person to bring together historical accounts into record. He did not have the benefit of much that was written down before him. Had there been written accounts of what happened at Salamis before Herodotus created his history, he may have been able to provide a more accurate account of the tactics of the battle.

Polybius, on the other hand, benefited from more than 200 years of historiographic practice between Herodotus and himself. His accounts of Roman naval tactics are much more detailed, presumably because he was able to draw from more accurate sources.

Polybius on a pedestal.

Polybius gives a highly detailed tactical account of the naval Battle of Ecnomus, which resembled the land Battle of Cannae, with an attempt by the Carthaginians to execute a pincer maneuver on the Roman fleet.  Polybius describes the movements of all of the Carthaginian and Roman squadrons, including the pivotal moment when the two Roman squadrons in the center were able to flip direction and attack the flanking Carthaginians in the rear [3].

Elsewhere, Polybius also very accurately describes the structure of the corvus boarding ramp [4] and gives details of how it was used for the first time in battle [5]. Polybius wisely relates to his readers how this device worked near the beginning of his account of the major naval actions of the First Punic War. As this was a primary Roman naval machine used throughout war, the reader has the function of the corvus in mind while reading the tactical accounts of a battle like Ecnomus. Polybius, also being a close ally of the Scipio family, had access to information about the Punic Wars that other writers did not possess.

Even a poet in the right place and time can provide insight into a battle. Aeschylus’s play, The Persians, fills a different sort of role for those seeking information on the Battle of Salamis. We know from the play, written eight years after the battle, that the Battle of Salamis was viewed by the Greeks as an event worthy of dramatic retelling, and worthy of inclusion in a sacred event. Greek theatre was intended to honor the gods, and Aeschylus demonstrates Xerxes’s offense against the gods, bridging the Hellespont, as an act of hubris:

“Remember Athens: henceforth let not pride,

Her present state disdaining, strive to grasp

Another’s, and her treasured happiness

Shed on the ground: such insolent attempts

Awake the vengeance of offended Jove.

But you, whose age demands more temperate thoughts,

With words of well-placed counsel teach his youth

To curb that pride, which from the gods calls down

Destruction on his head” [6]

Aeschylus, warrior-poet.

Through the course of the play, Aeschylus recounts the names of many Persian lords who perished at the hands of the Greek fleet. Whether this list can be trusted is debatable, as Aeschylus could be just making up names for dramatic effect. However, Aeschylus is believed to have been a veteran of the Battle of Salamis, so he might have had privileged knowledge of the commanders involved in the battle.

Aeschylus’s status as a veteran of the battle lends credence to the play’s usage as a primary source for the Battle of Salamis. While it can provide little in the way of tactical description of the battle, it does demonstrate the mindset of at least one veteran, who believed that his actions, and the actions of his fellow sailors, were a divine instrument of punishment against a prideful and reckless foreign leader. By bridging the Hellespont, Xerxes laid offense to the people of Greece, the gods and the land itself. Furthermore, it also shows an attitude of acknowledgement by the people of Greece that the gods played a role in the victory, and that victory was definitely not assured otherwise. If the Greeks were confident that the victory was entirely their doing, the play would be celebrating themselves, and not the gods. This would indicate that to the Greeks, the Battle of Salamis was indeed a desperate and serious battle for the survival of Greece itself.

Take a moment and look at the featured image above this blog post. The painting is Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis (1868). Notice that the idea of divine intervention in this battle is one that has lasted through the centuries. Those figures floating in the upper right corner of the painting are gods. Aeschylus helped create the lasting notion that the gods were watching and acting at Salamis. You can actually see Aeschylus’s influence reflected in the painting, more than 2,300 years after Aeschylus fought at Salamis.


[1] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, trans. George Rawlinson, accessed June 24, 2015,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Polybius, Histories, trans. W.R. Paton, accessed June 25, 2015,, 28.10.

[4] Ibid., 22.3.

[5] Ibid., 23.5.

[6] Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. Robert Potter, accessed June 25, 2015,

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

The End of the Bronze Age – When is Guessing Okay?

Recommended. You should check it out.

Robert Drews’s book, The End of the Bronze Age, is an interesting read in terms of content and methodology. Drews attempts to explain the sudden end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean by attributing it to a mysterious Catastrophe, which  has its origins in military change.  According to Drews, the losses of palace-based aristocratic chariot soldiers both on the battlefield and in societies created a disruption within many Late Bronze civilizations from which there was no recovery [1]. Drews makes the case that this military change was the direct cause of the Catastrophe, which ended or weakened dominant civilizations across the Eastern Mediterranean around the year 1200 BC, and marked the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

When determining his hypothesis for the Catastrophe, Drews considers a number of factors. First, what was the Catastrophe and, specifically, what was the difference between the civilizations of the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age? Drews spends the first two parts of his three-part book explaining both the nature of the Catastrophe and debunking the alternate explanations for it: earthquakes, migrations, drought, systems collapse and raiders. Critics of Drews’s work have varying opinions on this analysis of the alternate causes of the Catastrophe. Young and Thomas make generally favorable remarks, but there is tough criticism from Van Wees and Cline. The former characterizes Drew’s attempts to discredit the alternate explanations, particularly the “raiders” theory as unconvincing due to a lack of evidence [2]. Cline accuses Drews of distorting conflicting explanations for the Catastrophe to fit his hypothesis [3] and of incorrectly labeling systems collapse and raiders as consequences of the Catastrophe, instead of causes. In part three of the book, Drews details the prominence of chariot warfare in the Late Bronze Age and its disappearance in the Iron Age. The decline of the chariot coincided with the rise of infantry as the main focus of the Iron Age military. This distinction is the focal point of Drews’s work.

Let’s be real. We all know it was the Sea People, right?

This begs a question: do the sources exist to explain what happened in the Catastrophe, and to solidly support Drews’s hypothesis? The short answer is no, and Drews seems to be the first to admit it. “On many questions one can only guess, and since guessing seems unprofessional, historians do as little of it as possible,” Drews writes. “The result, however, is that for lack of evidence one of the most important things about the preclassical world is largely ignored. There is good reason to think that the evolution of warfare made and unmade the world of the Late Bronze Age. Even though we cannot be certain about this evolution, and especially about its details, it is time that we begin to guess.”[4]

Now comes the philosophical question which I think is very important to history: is it okay to guess? I was quite surprised to see that many of Drews’s reviewers failed to address the act of guessing directly. Rather, most who criticized Drews’s hypothesis as inconclusive, such as Cline [5] and Haggis [6], did so by pointing out a lack of evidence. Only Young directly addressed the issue of guessing. Of Drews, he says, “…he marshals old and new evidence on what he calls ‘the Catastrophe’ in a masterly fashion which, mixed with a little guesswork, provides us with significant and exciting new scholarly insights on a pivotal period in ancient history. Would that we could all ‘guess’ as effectively.”[7]

The great obstacle to any study of the ancient world is a scarcity of sources. Even within the range of available sources, there are bad translations, bias,  and great variances in quality of authorship. Does this great obstacle and its associated, smaller obstacles excuse Drews’s approach, in which he unabashedly admits guessing at the main points in his work? Young seems to applaud the effort. I am conflicted. On the one hand, all hypotheses are guesses to some degree, backed by evidence. On the other, when evidence is so lacking, is it better to not present a half-baked hypothesis?

There are more questions to ask when confronting this particular historical issue: is there a single cause for the Catastrophe or multiple causes? Is the cause the same from civilization to civilization? How sudden was the transition from chariot to infantry?

Drews presents the idea of a military shift as singular causation, but there are critics that remain unconvinced. Cline states that Drews’s explanation for the Catastrophe is not the only possible explanation, and does not provide the final answer [8]. Young states that Drews’s argument does not negate the theory of systems collapse effectively, and that a military change and systems collapse are not mutually exclusive [9].

Haggis is concerned with Drews’s one-size-fits-all approach to causation. Drews presents the military shift as the singular cause of the Catastrophe for civilizations from one end of the eastern Mediterranean to the other. Were these cultures not different from one another? Haggis suggests this hurts Drews’ assertion of singular causation, and that Drews should provide more explanation regarding to the culturally specific variables of each region, relative to his thesis [10].

Lastly, the lack of sources and frames of reference on time have the potential to make events in the ancient world seem closer together and more connected in the causal chain. This is another criticism that Haggis has of Drews’s argument. Haggis suggests Drews’s narrative makes the Catastrophe seem like it occurred more quickly than it actually did. Haggis says that length of time could have allowed for a more gradual, internal shift to dominant infantry than Drews suggests [11]. Young defends Drews by stating that the destructions of the Catastrophe took place in a compressed enough period of time for them to be considered closely related events.

After thinking about it for a bit, I can see that Drews is sincere about what he is attempting to do. At one point, he even unnecessarily apologizes for writing a military history while not being a military historian [12]. So he is aware that he is operating in an imperfect situation and he makes it clear that he’s doing the best he can with the resources he has.

I also suspect that his reviewers were happy to see a new work of scholarship on the Late Bronze Age Catastrophe and were respectful of an attempt to inject new life into an old mystery. Ancient history can be very intimidating to write. Ideas are often stopped before they start because of the vast amount of writing that has already been done on the era, combined with the scarcity of sources.

It just struck me odd when I was reading Drews’s conclusion that I came across so many terms indicating uncertainty. This is the thesis wrap, where the author is supposed to be most convincing in his argument. On page 216 and 217, I flagged a “whatever,” a “very likely”, two “imagines” and a “perhaps” all in a pretty close arrangement regarding a key point of support for his thesis [13].

I agree with Young, who says that Drews’s work seems partially developed and he would like to read more of what Drews has to say [14]. It’s a very entertaining book, but I think Drews is really stretching his reasoning pretty thin. I want to believe him, but I’m sticking with multiple causation when it comes to the Catastrophe.


[1] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, and Paul Lococo, War in World History: Society, Technology, and War from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. 1 (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2009), 14.

[2] Hans Van Wees, “Review,” Greece and Rome, Second Series, vol. 41, No. 1, (April 1994), 75

[3] Eric H. Cline, “Review,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 56, no. 2 (April 1997): 127.

[4] Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA.1200 BC (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 98.

[5] Cline, “Review,” 129.

[6] Donald C. Haggis, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 116, No. 2 (Summer 1995), 323.

[7] T. Cuyler Young, Jr., “Review,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 2 (June 1995): 312.

[8] Cline, “Review,” 129.

[9] Young, “Review,” 312.

[10] Haggis, “Review,” 324.

[11] Ibid., 323.

[12] Drews, “The End,” 102.

[13] Ibid., 216-17.

[14] Young, “Review,” 312.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC

Two Takes on Training the Ancient Warrior: Vegetius and Sun Tzu

If there’s one military maxim that has been proven time and again over many centuries of history, it is that the best trained militaries typically perform much better than their poorly trained enemies. It’s not a radical concept to understand, but what might surprise some people is how organized and committed certain commanders and societies were at training their soldiers. Two outstanding documents on training that have survived to this day are the well-known Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the not-as-well-known De Re Militari, by the Roman general Pulius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (or, simply, Vegetius). Both training manuals have a distinct style, and show us how two very different cultures held similar viewpoints regarding war.

Vegetius’s De Re Militari

Vegetius (5th century AD, around AD 435-450) and Sun Tzu (544 BC to 496 BC) have much in common because their goals are similar from the outset. Both generals wrote manuals describing the ideal conditions of conducting a campaign and managing men under their banners. This commitment to the ideal draws the philosophy of two men from different lands, cultures, and times together.

In the ideal, armies are made of disciplined troops, who are well supplied and organized, and who exercise caution and aggression at just the right moment. Of course, these ideal troops always operate from advantageous terrain, in the proper formation and end the battle victorious, with as few losses as possible to their side. They are controlled in pursuit of the fleeing enemy and they allow the enemy the opportunity to flee. An ideal campaign is not protracted and lengthy, and an army’s soldiers stay motivated and level-headed. These are goals that both Vegetius and Sun Tzu value and mention in their works. But that says more about military culture than the cultures of Rome and China. All militaries, with few exceptions, would agree to these commonalities, so it’s not surprising at all to find them in the works of both Vegetius and Sun Tzu.

What makes Vegetius and Sun Tzu different from many is that they placed value on educating others about war. They viewed their professional duties from a systematic standpoint, and did not place value on chance and random events. Both men believed, as Vegetius says, that “…he who hopes for success, should fight on principal, not chance.”[1] As both men held prominent positions as military leaders, this attitude reflects an appreciation in both cultures for reason, rule and order. The fact that these manuals were meant to be shared also reveals a value placed on education and literacy in both cultures, at least for the ruling classes.

Both men lived their lives in periods of time where warfare was common, even constant. Consider the references to war as an art form. The title of Sun Tzu’s work is “The Art of War.” Vegetius, in his final words of his manual, refers to the “art of conquest.”[2] If you had never encountered war before, and saw it for the very first time, would you refer to it as art? Probably not. War is chaotic, bloody, violent, and centered on death and destruction. Yet, Vegetius and the Chinese referred to war as art. Regardless of medium, art is almost always controlled, deliberate, expressive, inspired, and provokes thought and/or emotion. This is how the two men viewed war. How many conflicts would a person have to bear witness to, and be a participant in, before his point of view shifted from the fear and confusion of the first battle to the visionary experience of a master artist? How indoctrinated in war must these societies be in order for this viewpoint to seem normal?

Read either Sun Tzu or Vegetius and you will also encounter many references to how “the ancients”[3] did things or how the heroes who came before them conducted themselves in war. [4] This is indicative of cultures that share ancestor veneration in common. Ancestral altars and memorials are well-known features of both Roman and Chinese homes. Both cultures observe filial piety across all classes of society, and this tendency is reflected in the constant presence of the ancients in the works of Sun Tzu and Vegetius. Indeed, both generals may have acquired instant credibility for their views by linking them with the actions of respected figures from the past.

Sun Tzu

One of the main differences that is noticeable between Sun Tzu and Vegetius is how they operate in different planes. Sun Tzu is more strategic in view and his philosophy is ethereal and spiritual. He talks of balances and relationships between one variable and another, such as rest and exertion, union and separation, confidence and surprise. [5]  He draws parallels between war and nature [6] and makes references to ch’i.[7] He is the more cerebral of the two authors, and his philosophy seems to fall in line with the traditional Chinese emphasis on harmonious relationships.

Vegetius is more tactical in his recommendations, and his tone is flavored with traditional Roman practicality. This is exemplified in his general maxims, nearly all of which apply to common situations within a campaign’s ground-level operations. “Valor is superior to numbers.” “The nature of the ground is often of more consequence than courage.” “Novelty and surprise throw an enemy into consternation, but common incidents have no effect.”[8]

Many people have read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and have attempted to apply the work to everything from organized sports to business. My personal view is that this is a less than ideal way to view this work. The Art of War is a relic of a particular place and time. So is De Re Militari. We can learn much from these works about how the Chinese and the Romans viewed war, the role of the commander, and how they viewed the men who served as soldiers in the rank and file. Of course, one can learn from both books and be influenced by the lessons within each, but I urge you to spend more time thinking about the time and the setting of both books, rather than how they apply to modern life. Both manuals are a gold mine of insight into the past, and a wonderful opportunity to learn more about ancient Romans and Chinese.


[1] Vegetius, On Roman Military Matters, trans. John Clarke (St. Petersburg: Red and Black, 2008), 52.

[2] Ibid., 93.

[3] Sun Tzu, “Chapter 3: The Art of Warfare” in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (Boulder: Westview Press 1993), 163.

[4] Vegetius, 51.

[5] Sun Tzu, 158.

[6] Ibid., 165.

[7] Ibid., 170.

[8] Vegetius, 91.


Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC 

But… All the Good Topics are Taken!

One of the mental barriers that historians have to conquer is stopping an idea before you start. Haven’t you had a great person or event or trend that you wanted to write about, for instance, only to discover that the topic has been “done” to death, or that your idea has been thoroughly disproven by historians A-Z over the course of two centuries?

I can’t let this dude be the last word on the Roman Empire, and you shouldn’t either. He’s a great guy. But he wasn’t the first to write about Rome, and he won’t be the last!

I’m here today to tell you two things, primarily. First, the chances that you will come up with an original thought, much less an original idea for a historical research project, are practically nil. Second, you shouldn’t let that stop you from writing what you think. In history, as in most forms of writing, it doesn’t matter who wrote it first so much as who wrote it best. Do you have something to contribute to the conversation surrounding a historical topic? Then, say it.

It might have been said before. It might have been said brilliantly by a historian waaaaaay more accomplished than you. But you have two advantages that brilliant historian did not have. You have his brilliant argument to start from, and you have a more modern audience than he did. You see, the historiography of a particular topic will always be there, whether you contribute to it or not (and you should). A book is a book. A journal article is a journal article. Those things, once written, remain static. They don’t change with the times. But, your audience does. Your audience is a constantly evolving entity which places emphasis on certain ideas and media that did not exist the day before, or decade before, or century before. A historian who can frame an observation from a certain point of view, and communicate that viewpoint to an interested audience, will always be a successful historian, even if his topic has been beaten into the ground.

There will always be someone new who has not heard the story you are writing about. Wide-eyed readers are a constantly renewing resource. Who will these people turn to, when they want to read the story of the Alamo, or the *USS Tang*, or the conquest of the Aztec Empire? They will turn the historian who reaches them first and speaks to them via the method and viewpoint that is most accessible to them.

Modern historians have the advantages of new media available to them. Blogs, self-publishing, podcasts, Youtube… the methods of reaching new audiences are so much greater now than in the days of Gibbon, Ranke, or Mahan. You’ve been given amazing gifts: the collected knowledge of the human race is at your fingertips via the internet, and you have the ability to reach millions from your living room.

Don’t worry if your topic is original or not. Bring a new take to it. Modernize an old topic. Bring new people to the old topic and give it new life again. If your topic is weak, don’t worry. As you write, it will change, and become strong. Trust the process and don’t kill your idea before it’s had a chance to live.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC 

What is Military History (And Why do I Study it)?

On my Facebook feed, I frequently see an advertisement for Norwich University’s Military History program (full disclosure, I’m a master’s degree student there), and the comments that follow the advertisement are a consistent source of wonder for me. It seems most of the commenters don’t really have an idea of what military history is.

The Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8, 2015. It looked nothing like this, by the way. But this painting is part of history. History = Past Event + Interpreter.

Some question why we study battle plans and tactics all day. Others wonder why we should study war at all. Some dismiss the study as pointless, as what sort of job would a master of military history degree qualify a person for?

First, there is a misconception that military history is the study of tactics and military strategy. That is a part of it, yes, but only as tactics and strategy apply to something that happened in the past. Studying tactics and strategy as it relates to the present and the future is a whole other thing. History requires a past event. Therefore, military history is the study of military matters that happened in the past. This study is not limited to tactics and strategy, though. We study the relationship of the military to the state and vice-versa, the role of the military in shaping perceptions of gender and race, the use of violence as a means of political expression, and the like. When studying military history, knowing how to load a M1 Garand or knowing how to fly an AH-64 Apache will not help you as much as knowing how elections really work, or how public opinion is actually shaped. The ties between the political world and the military world are a big part of what we read and write about.

Secondly, I saw on that post a rather frightening number of replies that suggested it was distasteful to study war, that we should be teaching “peace,” instead. Again, I think we see here another misunderstanding of what it is we study and teach as military historians. We are not in the business of teaching people to kill each other. We are in the business of finding out how and why people are made to kill each other, and to analyze and comment on war as an agent of change in history. War is a constant in human history not because military historians think it’s cool and we want to keep the wars going. If all wars stopped tomorrow, we would celebrate right alongside everyone else, and our jobs would not be in jeopardy one bit. That’s because, again, our purpose is studying the past.

There are lots of different kinds of history: region-based history, like American history or African history; race and gender-based history like Native American history or women’s history; culture-based history like the history of farming in Colorado, or the history of music, or sports, for example. Military history is just one of those different kinds. The key is the word “history.” We have all the same training and ability to scrutinize and synthesize as any other historian. We just specialize in matters related to people under arms.

Lastly, I want to say that I do not study military history because it will help me get a job. I already have a job, and it has nothing to do with military history. Even if my military history degree never helps me land a single minute of employment, I will still consider it worth it. And here’s why: I only get to live one life. The time that I have here is limited, and it’s all I will ever have. When I’m at the end of my time, I want to look back on it and say that I did things that I was passionate about, not necessarily what I was forced to do for money. By studying military history, in audacious defiance of our money-obsessed culture, I’m doing what the hell I want to do with my life. Some people spend their money on trips to the Bahamas. Some people spend their money collecting sports memorabilia. Some people spend their money on expensive camera equipment. I spend my money so I can be a knowledgable person, and so I can understand life. I’m fine with not having a lot of money. What’s more important to me is that I live my life my way, and say what I want to say. That’s why I’m here. I hope that’s how you feel about that thing that you are passionate about. No judging… if you collect Beanie Babies, I say live your life, man. I really hope you get that commemorative purple Princess Diana bear you’ve had your heart set on. But if a war breaks out over it, I’m writing about it!

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC